Land Sharks

 

Delta’s lead role in Iraq gave the Army unit the inside track on the $100 million checklist of HVTs it took down there, including Saddam Hussein, his sons Uday and Qusay, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But DEVGRU’s patience would pay big dividends when the nation’s attention refocused on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Afghanistan lacks the infrastructure, dense population bases, and flat geography that allowed JSOC to ramp up its mission tempo to a dizzying pace in Iraq.i However, the revolutionary intelligence collection and exploitation techniques developed in Iraq, combined with the mastery of Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain that ST6 had steadily developed during the better part of a decade (a far cry from their early stumbles in ’02),ii perfectly positioned SEAL Team Six to spearhead the renewed effort with great effectiveness… and ultimately get the call to go after bin Laden.

At its lowest point in Afghanistan, JSOC was down to just a 30-man DEVGRU strike force, supported by a Ranger element.iii However, as Task Force 373 (formerly TF 11) kicked back into gear, ST6 began rotating the bulk of its forces into the country.iv

Terrorist and insurgent groups throughout the nation were targeted, among them Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura Taliban in the south, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the north, and the al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba and Haqqani network, both in the east.v

With DEVGRU at the center of this staggering campaign of kinetic intensity, the pace of operations increased 50% in 2008, and the number of raids would more than double each successive year.vi In May-August 2011 alone, Coalition special operation forces killed more than 1300 enemy fighters (including 235 leaders) and captured almost 1700 more over 4000 operations.vii Of those, 500 were conducted by JSOC, which “had done most of the killing.”viii

The accuracy of intelligence and targeting was such that in 84% of the raids the primary or secondary target was either killed or captured.ix

For perspective, consider the single-evening snapshot of the evening SEAL Team Six neutralized Osama bin Laden: JSOC SMUs carried out a further 13 raids back across the border in Afghanistan, killing nine insurgents and capturing 24.x

However, despite the grizzly statistics, in the eyes of the operators, what they do is more about saving lives than ending them. They’re the ones counted on to defend the Coalition’s conventional forces and they do so by removing the “bullies” from the equation. Recall the proactive yet protective role DEVGRU played in minimizing the IED threat by raking through the offending networks in Iraq.xi

Prior to his death, which came as his troop was en route to reinforce a Ranger assault operation, Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Campbell was asked by author Eric Blehm to describe the function he performs as a member of SEAL Team Six.

Campbell replied, “…If we can save kids and some of these conventional guys who are getting killed needlessly by some thugs in an area, in a convoy or something like that… Saving lives, that’s what I consider my job. That’s the best part of my job and that’s what we live for; that’s what we operate for.”xii

After nine soldiers of the Bundeswehr were killed in early 2010, Task Force 373 pledged to the German military that they would hunt down those responsible for the attacks. The promised results were swiftly delivered.xiii

While the terrifyingly efficient methods of SEAL Team Six likely provided its allies with a psychological boost, they served to do just the opposite to its enemies. As a Coalition infantryman may have rested a bit easier at night knowing those guys were out there for him, a Taliban fighter laid awake haunted by the exact same realization.

Despite claiming to not only welcome martyrdom but actually seek it, Inside the Taliban, a CNN documentary that aired December 11, 2010, showed another side to the insurgents. In doing so, it illuminated the sheer level of terror DEVGRU instilled in its quarry.

A Norwegian filmmaker embedded with a group of Taliban fighters who conducted hit-and-run attacks on Coalition troops and showed very little concern of retaliation throughout. That changed with the distinctive sound of a circling AC-130, which evoked a Pavlovian response from the documentary’s subjects.

A transcript of the relevant section follows:xiv

ANDERSON COOPER: (Paul) Refsdal has been with (Commander) Davran for eight days. Over and over, the Taliban have attacked U.S. forces from the same positions. Now, it seems, the Americans are ready to respond.

PAUL REFSDAL, NORWEGIAN FILMMAKER: One afternoon, there’s this plane flying around in the area. And Davran says, “Stay in the house.”

COOPER (voice-over): Throughout the day, the plane continues flying, and Davran is concerned.

REFSDAL: All the time there’s jets, the sound of jets flying around, and the Taliban, they don’t care about it. But there’s one plane that scares them.

COOPER (on camera): What is it about that plane that scares them?

REFSDAL: It was the sound of this transport plane that scared them. And this is a plane equipped with a lot of heavy machine guns, even a cannon. And the thing is, the Taliban, they know that this gunship is used when there are some special forces operations. It’s used as air support during these kind of operations.

COOPER (voice-over): Finally, the plane goes away, night falls and Refsdal is asleep. But not for long.

REFSDAL: Midnight, I was woken up by the sound of this plane. I can hear it. They’re flying around. It’s firing down in the valley. I put on the camera just to record the sound, then suddenly, Davran comes knocks on door, says something. He said, “Just get out. Leave your things. Get out. Run.” We found an old, you know, abandoned shed and we slept there during the night. All the time, we heard — we heard the firing.

COOPER (voice-over): The explosions continue. It will be hours before Refsdal knows what’s really happened… By daybreak the next morning, the American attack is over. The valley below is quiet, and Paul Refsdal emerges from hiding.

REFSDAL: We wake up very early and we walk back to the house of Davran. I could see that something really bad had happened.

COOPER (voice-over): Davran says a dozen people, including his top lieutenant, Assad, have been killed in a special forces raid.

REFSDAL: Davran is sitting there — he’s actually crying, he’s crying like a kid because he lost his second-in-command, and you know, several people he knows.

COOPER: Fearing he’ll be the next target, Davran flees with his family…

Techniques and technologies advanced rapidly as DEVGRU continued to build upon its experience and adapt in order to stay a step ahead of its adversaries.

Rather than hitting target locations loud and hard, fast-roping in from Black Hawks or landing on rooftops via Little Bird insertions as had been the methods of choice in Iraq, ST6 leaned increasingly heavily on stealth as the Afghanistan campaign took shape.

On numerous occasions, DEVGRU operators patrolled unseen to target compounds following arduous, multi-hour nighttime hikes that originated miles away, opening from a remote outpost or a location transported to by helicopter or HAHO parachute navigation.xv

Once on site, rather than relying on explosive entries, flashbangs, and rushing through doors to clear rooms in a flurry of activity, ST6 would quietly advance as far as possible before striking. The mantra of ‘surprise, speed, and violence of action’ was largely supplanted by ‘silence, stealth, and decisiveness of action.’xvi

More than one ST6 SEALxvii has spoken of infiltrations and weaponry so silent that terrorists were shot dead without their compatriots awakening down the hall.xviii

With its operators frequently utilizing customized versions of the latest suppressed HK416 assault rifles or HK MP7 submachine guns, along with the new four-tube panoramic night vision goggles,xix SEAL Team Six made optimal use of its technological superiority.

The mounting successes and escalating operational capabilities led to increasingly audacious undertakings in Afghanistan.

On one occasion, in a single evening a Red Squadron troop wiped out an entire insurgent cell that had been harassing a remote ISAF forward operating base in Kunar Province. Following a four-mile hike over the ridge line, assault teams simultaneously entered three target buildings prior to being noticed and opening their attack. Aided by suppressed RECCE sniper fire, they proceeded to tear through the cell in the subsequent one-sided firefights, notching up 17 kills while taking no significant injuries.xx

Several additional enemy fighters were killed by AC-130 strikes as they attempted to reinforce the compound and locate the exfiltrating DEVGRU operators.xxi

In March of 2010, SEAL Team Six undertook a similarly ambitious operation with the aim of eliminating a particularly blood-thirsty Kunar Province Taliban leader who had been targeting and killing American troops. Having tracked his activities since 2008, Coalition intel officers believed he was in the planning stages of yet another attack.xxii

In what was described as a “classic DEVGRU mission,” Gold Squadron fast roped from a pair of MH-47E Chinooks into a tight ravine and then traversed more than six hours through mountainous terrain under cover of darkness to the objective.xxiii

The village was tucked away in a narrow wooded valley and all nearby occupants were expected to be hostile.

The SEAL Team Six operators infiltrated the compound and successfully eliminated the targeted individual and his guards but not until after a costly shootout. With fire picking up from all directions, the team escaped the “hornet’s nest,” again aided by the protective cover provided by an AC-130H overhead.xxiv

While a tactical victory was scored despite the overwhelming challenges that were faced, the team lost a legendary warrior in the process.

No stranger to overwhelming challenges, Chief Special Warfare Operator Adam Brown overcame nearly unthinkable odds just to join the ranks of the Navy, let alone SEAL Team Six. From the age of twenty up through his rise through the ranks of the SEALs, Brown battled through a harrowing drug addiction, multiple felony arrests, the loss of his dominant eye due to a training incident, and a convoy accident in Afghanistan that mangled his right hand (the last two combining to force him to retrain himself to shoot left-handed). Undeterred and with an unbreakable spirit, Brown passed SEAL sniper training, Green Team, and established himself as a top DEVGRU operator.

After his death, a number of Brown’s teammates made the unique exception to their vow of silence to help tell his remarkable story in Eric Blehm’s Fearless.

 

Impossible

 

No matter how heart wrenching it was to lose Adam Brown — and all of the others from SEAL Team Six who made the ultimate sacrifice before him — it couldn’t possibly prepare the unit for the coming disaster that would be called the “worst day in (ST6’s) history by a mile.”xxv

On August 6, 2011 — just three months after the elimination of Osama bin Laden — Extortion 17, an Army National Guard CH-47D Chinook conducting an immediate reaction force (IRF) mission in Wardak Province in eastern Afghanistan, was struck by an enemy RPG.

Inbound to prevent the escape of Taliban fighters fleeing from a 75th Ranger Regiment assault operation, the helicopter instead crashed. All 38 onboard were killed, including 30 American servicemen. Among them were 22 from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, 17 of whom were DEVGRU operators. xxvi

Those 17 were from the same troop at Gold Squadronxxvii to which Brown had belonged.xxviii

The loss of so many decorated warfighters came as a crushing blow that devastated not just SEAL Team Six but an entire nation still celebrating Operation Neptune Spear.

However, even prior to the Extortion 17 crash, ST6 was no stranger to calamity. The unit has seen repeated tragedy alongside triumph throughout a decade of unyielding conflict. That’s an unavoidable reality for an outfit that is routinely assigned to accomplish the impossible.

It may be said that ‘failure is not an option’ but sometimes there is no other option.

Hostage rescue — one of those high-priority and extreme-level-of-difficulty missions for which DEVGRU exists — is always a gamble. There’s a very real risk of any rescue attempt going bad, and even those considered among the best in business sport a mixed record of results.xxix Just the same, negotiating with terrorists can encourage further hostage situations and doing nothing at all can prove equally precarious.

Hostage rescue is also a strange beast in that it’s, almost by definition, a high-profile mission tasking. Units that don’t officially exist are called upon to deal with publicity-seeking terrorists in order to save those who will have incentive to seek publicity themselves in the event of a successful rescue.xxx And as such, HR ops occasionally offer a rare glimpse behind the shroud that typically masks the activities of clandestine commands such as ST6, no matter how unkind or unfair that glimpse may be.

That comes with the territory for classified units whose non-HR successes are almost always kept hidden, unlike their failings, which more often come into public view.xxxi

The unsuccessful attempt to rescue British aid worker Linda Norgrove from Taliban insurgents in October 2010 stands as one such example that left a serious black mark on DEVGRU’s proud tradition.

Held captive at 8000 feet in the mountains of northern Kunar Province, communication intercepts suggested that Norgrove was in imminent danger of either being executed or transported to al-Qaeda forces across the border in Pakistan.xxxii

A pre-dawn raid was given the green light, and two dozen operators from SEAL Team Six, supported by Rangers, fast-roped down from MH-60 Black Hawks and stormed the compound.xxxiii

Some inside the British Special Air Service later questioned the wisdom of a heliborne assault,xxxiv but the impending threat and treacherous terrain was said to have eliminated all other possibilities.xxxv

Covered by an AC-130U gunship and RECCE snipers in the Black Hawks above, the DEVGRU strike team rapidly took out six insurgents.

However, unseen to the assaulters, another Taliban fighter attempted to drag Norgrove from the compound. The hostage slipped free and dropped into the fetal position as the firefight took place around her.xxxvi

One operator tossed a grenade at the remaining combatant from a nearby roof, killing him but also severely wounding the hidden Norgrove in the process.xxxvii

While still alive when discovered by the ST6 operators, Norgrove soon died despite attempts to save her.

It was initially believed (and reported to the press) that Norgrove was killed by the explosion of a Taliban suicide vest. It wasn’t until days later, when drone and helmet cam footage was carefully re-reviewed, that the truth was suspected.

When the team was confronted the SEAL who threw the grenade stepped forward and admitted his mistake.xxxviii He was dismissed from the unit, and a number of others were also disciplined for not coming forward immediately.xxxix One report claimed that two others were also dismissed.xl

(Maj. Gen. Joseph Votel — who would soon become Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel as he succeeded Adm. William McRaven as JSOC commander — led the investigation.xli)

The botched rescue attempt was closely tracked by the media — particularly the British press, who repeatedly questioned why the SAS or Delta Force weren’t given the assignment.xlii

Earlier, in 2005, David Addison, a Welsh security advisor, was ambushed and taken hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan.xliii

While unconfirmed and with scant few details to go on, persistent rumors suggest that Addison was killed just prior to, or during the course of, a DEVGRU rescue attempt.

In February of 2011, former Hollywood director Scott Adam, his wife, Jean, Phyllis Macay, and Bob Riggle were taken hostage by Somali pirates aboard Adam’s 58-foot yacht, Quest, off the coast of Oman.xliv

Shadowed by U.S. Navy warships and with a drone watching from above, negotiations with the pirates ended without warning five days after the hijacking. The pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the USS Sterett and gunned down the hostages.xlv

An assault team from Gold Squadron rushed to board the ship in response to the deadly development; in the moments that followed, they successfully captured 13 pirates and killed two — one by gunfire, the other by a knife to the throat — but the hostages were already lost.xlvi

However, in 2009 ST6 scored the first of a number of high-profile victories. The world watched on as a dramatic hostage rescue was executed with astonishing precision. And that save came courtesy of perhaps the most low-visibility asset in DEVGRU’s roster: Black Squadron.

 

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Coming in Part 5: Blacker Than Black, More Than Just ‘One Perfect Op’ & No Go

 

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Notes

i Sean D. Naylor, “JSOC task force battles Haqqani militants,” Army Times (September 13, 2010), http://www.armytimes.com/news/2010/09/army-haqqani-092010w/.

ii Sean D. Naylor, “Exclusive: Inside a U.S. hostage rescue mission,” Navy Times (November 7, 2008), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2008/11/military_air_rescue_110708w/.

iii Scarborough, Sabotage, 167.

iv Naylor, “JSOC task force battles Haqqani militants.”

v Ibid.

vi Naylor, “Chinook crash highlights rise in spec ops raids.”

vii Kimberly Dozier, “Petraeus highlights special ops successes in Afghanistan,” Associated Press (September 4, 2010), http://www.fayobserver.com/articles/2010/09/04/1027918?sac=Mil.

viii Naylor, “JSOC task force battles Haqqani militants.”

ix Naylor, “Chinook crash highlights rise in spec ops raids.”

x Gellman, “William McRaven: The Admiral,” TIME.

xi Blehm, Fearless, 168-169.

xii “Fearless Pt. 2” SOFREP Podcast (July 14, 2012), http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sofrep-special-operations/id528947912.

xiii Matthias Gebauer, John Goetz, Hans Hoyng, Susanne Koelbl, Marcel Rosenbach and Gregor Peter Schmitz, “US Elite Unit Could Create Political Fallout for Berlin,” Der Spiegel (July 26, 2010), http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/task-force-373-and-targeted-assassinations-us-elite-unit-could-create-political-fallout-for-berlin-a-708407.html.

xiv “Inside the Taliban,” CNN (December 11, 2010), http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1012/11/se.01.html.

xv Owen, No Easy Day.

xvi Ibid.

xvii Ibid.

xviii Mann, Inside SEAL Team Six, 5.

xix “GPNVG18” Soldier Systems, http://soldiersystems.net/2011/10/13/gpnvg18/.

xx Owen, No Easy Day.

xxi Ibid.

xxii Blehm, Fearless, 203.

xxiii Ibid, 207-213.

xxiv Ibid, 214-225.

xxv Sean D. Naylor, “NSW source: Crash ‘worst day in our history,” Navy Times (August 6, 2011), http://www.navytimes.com/news/2011/08/navy-special-warfare-community-in-shock-and-disbelief-080611/.

xxvi Yochi J. Dreazen, “Shadow War Unlikely to Slow Down After SEAL Deaths,” National Journal (August 9, 2011), http://www.nationaljournal.com/shadow-war-unlikely-to-slow-down-after-seal-deaths-20110809.

xxvii Naylor, “NSW source.”

xxviii Blehm, Fearless, 247.

xxix Chris Martin, “SAS/SBS: Hostage Rescue Track Record,” SOFREP (March 19, 2012), http://thenewsrep.com/4699/sassbs-hostage-rescue-track-record/.

xxx “Aid Worker Kidnapped by Pirates has Book Deal,” Associated Press (August 22, 2012), http://www.military.com/off-duty/books/2012/08/22/jessica-buchanan-book-deal.html?comp=7000023659888&rank=4.

xxxi Naylor, “Bin Laden raid a triumph for Spec Ops.”

xxxii Julian Borger, “Linda Norgrove: US navy Seal faces disciplinary action over grenade death,” The Guardian (October 13, 2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/13/linda-norgrove-us-commando-disciplinary.

xxxiii Sean Raymont, “Linda Norgrove: how the rescue operation was bungled,” The Telegraph (October 17, 2010), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/8068530/Linda-Norgrove-how-the-rescue-operation-was-bungled.html.

xxxiv James Chapman, Ian Drury, and Arthur Martin, “Moment British aid worker was killed in Afghanistan was captured on special forces’ helmet-mounted cameras,” The Daily Mail (October 12, 2010), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1319683/Linda-Norgroves-death-captured-US-special-forces-helmet-camera.html.

xxxv Borger, “Linda Norgrove: US navy Seal faces disciplinary action over grenade death.”

xxxvi “Aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed by US grenade,” BBC News (December 2, 2010), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-11900709.

xxxvii Borger, “Linda Norgrove: US navy Seal faces disciplinary action over grenade death.”

xxxviii Ibid.

xxxix Kimbery Dozier, “Triumphant SEAL unit must keep quiet,” Associated Press (May 5, 2011), http://www.toledoblade.com/World/2011/05/03/Triumphant-SEAL-unit-must-keep-quiet.html.

xl Nicholas Schmidle, “Getting Bin Laden.” The New Yorker (August 8, 2011), http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/08/110808fa_fact_schmidle?currentPage=all.

xli Sean D. Naylor, “2-star to head probe of failed hostage rescue,” Army Times (October 17, 2010), http://www.armytimes.com/news/2010/10/army-rescue-101810w/.

xlii Chapman, Drury, and Martin, “Moment British aid worker was killed in Afghanistan was captured on special forces’ helmet-mounted cameras.”

xliv Nancy Dillion, Phillip Caulfield, and Corky Siemaszko, “Four Americans, including ex-Hollywood director, killed by Somali pirates before SEALs boarded yacht,” NY Daily News (February 22, 2011): http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-02-22/news/29441911_1_somali-pirates-sailing-event-yacht.

xlv William M. Welch, Tom Vanden Brook, and Gary Stroller, “Pirate killings of four Americans escalate crisis,” USA Today (February 23, 2011), http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2011-02-22-pirates-hostages_N.htm.

xlvi Brandon Webb and John David Mann, The Red Circle: My Life in the Navy SEAL Sniper Corps and How I Trained America’s Deadliest Marksmen (New York: St. Martin’s Free Press, 2012), 225.